Sunday, November 20, 2005

Column 59 (National) - Where Are the Progressive Leaders?

Where Are the Progressive Leaders?

For this month’s National column, Jim and I decided to each do a critique of our own parties. Although I take the Progressive Democratic position in this column, I am not what’s called a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” (one who would vote for a yellow dog before he would vote for a Republican). I was dismayed at how my Party and its candidate presented itself in the last couple of elections, and have continued to be very concerned about the future of the two-party system if those on my side of the aisle continue as they have been.

I would begin the critique at the core – for the past six years or so, the Democratic Party has been the Party of “no.” We have defined ourselves by what we are against, not by what we are for, and have ceded to the GOP the ground of being “for” rather than against. In my work with organizations, I teach that there are three positions you can take – for, against, and about (the last is critiquing from the sidelines), that “for” is by far the fastest, most efficient route to creating value, and that organizational leaders who define themselves and their organization by what they are for have more successful organizations than those who are defined by what they oppose. President Clinton, whatever his faults (someday will we be able to mention him without that caveat?), led the country from a positive stance; since the Clinton Administration, the Democrats have stood against Bush, against the deficit, against revoking Roe v. Wade, against ultra-conservative judicial appointments, and lately against the war in Iraq. The Republicans, and I don’t blame them, have seized on this to define us as against the President, against tax cuts, against the “right to life,” against the President’s right to appoint judges, and against the military. The facts, e.g., on judicial approvals don’t’ support these attributions, but they stick in the absence of a vigorous positive Democratic message.

A second, and related criticism is of the lack of real leadership in the party. After losing to Bush in 2000, Al Gore went into retreat. In 2004, John Kerry effectively did the same thing as far as party leadership is concerned – he may already be campaigning for the 2008 election, but he is not doing so by leading the party, certainly not the way I would expect a candidate who lost by the slimmest margin of any election  to lead. Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean? When was the last time you heard from them other than in terms of what they were against or in transparent attempts to position themselves for 2008? Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are as close to leaders as we have.

Finally, I have to fault the Democrats for allowing the national debate to be framed by the Republicans. Understand, I don’t fault the GOP – if I had a clear field to set the terms of the political arena, I’d take it also, but why give it to them? We have allowed the Republicans to stage the debate on the right to privacy with them as “pro-life” and us as “pro-choice,” a thinly disguised version of “anti-life,” in the same way that the NRA has hijacked the gun control issue and made it one of leaving people defenseless in their own homes. Similarly, beginning with the Swift-boating of John Kerry, we have allowed questioning the wisdom of a war we entered under questionable circumstances to be painted as anti-American, unsupportive of the troops, and duped by, if not downright in favor of terrorism. In my darkest hours I have had the thought that any party dumb enough to allow these McCarthyist tactics doesn’t deserve to be in power.

I see some hopeful signs lately – Harry Reid’s calling the Senate into closed session to deal with the leak investigation, John Murtha’s standing up against the war and for the troops, and John Kerry’s standing for Murtha all suggest that maybe we have some leadership emerging. I hope so – right now John McCain is looking pretty good to me.

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